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« A major Italian University opts for 100% English »

Last Updated: 26 Jun 2014

A very stupid  method of governance

Pierre Frath

Université de Reims Champagne-Ardenne

«A major Italian University opts for 100% English »  informs us the website : http://www.slate.fr/lien/57689/universite-italienne-cours-uniquement-anglais on 14.6.2012. It concerns the Politecnico de Milan, one of the oldest universities in Italy which has planned to give all its master and PHD courses in English from 2014/2015 on. The arguments given in such a kind of situation are well-known : to allow students to accede to the labor market more easily, to increase the international influence of the university, to attract talents, i.e. the best students and the best professors. According to the rector of the university, "nobody, not even our detractors deny that this change will benefit our students." It is made clear that foreign students "will have to attend courses in Italian language and about Italian culture."

The journalist goes over all that without any comment. He just recalls that Luc Chatel, former Minister of Education, said that the fact that the French are bad at languages is "a real weakness of our country."

It seems that the media find it quite normal and that there is nothing to say. In 2010 I sent an article to Le Monde entitled  “Teaching and research must continue to be done in French in French speaking universities.” The article was ignored by the  evening newspaper and was finally published on the website of the APLV (Association des Professeurs des Langues Vivantes: Association of the professors of modern languages) and then taken on many websites and magazines.

To get back to this Italian school, they of course make a very serious mistake, and I am going to answer the rector's arguments point by point.

1)    «To allow students to accede to the labor market more easily»

Yes, it is clear that the command of the English language is considered as absolutely necessary for quite a few jobs. However, the reasons why this should lead to teaching totally in English are not clear. It would be enough to allocate the resources in language teaching in universities in order to significantly improve the situation. In 2008, I did a survey in my university which revealed that students had an average hour of language classes per week and much less locally. In the meantime, we have set up a House of Languages​​ based on the principle of self-learning which improves the situation but faculties are not favorable on the languages to come under the control of a common service- House of Languages. However, their failure is blatant: students have massively the level A2/B1 in the first year of BA and do not progress during the master level studies. They make ​​little progress in languages during their university studies. Thus, teaching entirely in English would be very problematic except if there was a university entrance selection based on languages, which raises other problems. English is after all a secondary subject and using it as a filter for the entrance to a university would prohibit an access for those whose parents had not planned to have their children learn English, i.e. the lower classes of the society. A selection based on English is a social selection. There is here a clear democratic deficit, monopolisation of education and important jobs by the upper middle classes.

2)    «Increase the international influence of the university»

Yes, it is true, some prestigious study programs in English give a certain influence to universities, in France as well.  What we forget is that in our country there are hundreds of other equally prestigious study programs in French which attract a large number of foreign students who have learned French just to be able to follow these courses. This distinguishes them from the banality of “international” diplomas, i.e. in English. Teaching master courses in English will kill francophonie- the speaking and promotion of French around the world: foreign students will ask why learn French if everything in France is in English. So what do we exactly mean by “influence”?  Not the influence of local cultures in any case!

3)    « Attract talent »

Who are the foreign students that will register at Politecnico de Milan? Not native English speakers or very few of them. British and American people are cultural introvert.They are not the only ones, far from it, but their culture is prevailing, which has a great impact on the others.  For example, they show little interest in foreign film, music and literature and their research especially in the humanities and arts ignores almost entirely the research which is not done in English. There won't be a massive enrollment of them in a non-English speaking university, even with courses in English. It won't be either the talented foreign students with a good command of English:  those will prefer the original to the copy and will go to British-American universities. So there will remain the good students who are bad at English (it would be necessary to provide English classes for them to reach the level) or bad students but who are good at English.

As for the teaching staff, we will witness two parallel phenomena.  Classes in English will be taught by non-native speakers often with difficulty and it won’t be easy for students to understand. The instructors will prepare classes in English in advance which they will read and the students will have difficulty in understanding. The quality of teaching is doomed to deteriorate: less improvisation, less adaptation to the public, less repeating of what has not been understood, etc. At a symposium on multilingualism held in Freiburg (Germany) in April 2012, a colleague from the University of Almeria (Spain) presented the policy of her institution concerning the organisation of master courses in English. The minimum required level for the instructors is B2, for students it is B1. Which benefit will the students of level B1 be able to have from the professors of the level B2? Other studies have shown that the level of international studies (in English) is lower than those made in local languages.

Another trend is the recruitment of native English teachers. But will they recruit the best? The latter will surely prefer to stay in their prestigious universities in Britain and in the United States, rather than accept a position somewhere in Europe. Moreover, local talent will dry up: research professors who are less good but English-speaking will be preferred.

Anyway, if everyone wants to "attract the best", they will spread everywhere, and we return to the statu quo ante, but in English, and therefore in a lower quality.

4)   «Nobody, not even our critics would deny that this change will benefit our students», says the rector

Let’s give him this article to read !

5)   «attend courses in Italian language and culture»

It is as much use as a poultice on a wooden leg, an Italian varnish on a low level course in English. This is a measure in order to sugar the pill for the supporters of multilingualism who get satisfied with little. A real multilingualism will be for example, to enable a Czech student to learn in Italian in Italy and then in other languages elsewhere.


Consequences of the dominance of English

Finally, I will just mention a few facts about the dominance of English in research and teaching.

Research is now shifting with bag and baggage to English. It is already almost done in science and technology. Human arts still resist. There are serious dangers. The first is that we are placing ourselves way behind research in English which in return shows little interest in what is done in other languages, or only according to criteria of their own. This is particularly serious in humanities and social sciences, where English research is not often the best. The loss of local traditions will be a loss for everyone.

Major languages ​​like French, German, Italian, Russian, etc. are going to lose their status as universal languages, i.e. the languages with which everything can be expressed. Most languages ​​are not universal. Their educated speakers have studied in a foreign language and therefore cannot express all that they know and think in their mother tongue. This is already the case in Italian in some fields. Then they use that foreign language in technical and scientific fields, especially in research. Whether it is English or another language, it does not bother them in any way. This is the case for example in Finland. It is quite different for the languages ​​that possess, like French, a rich and ancient tradition, and which enable their speakers to express everything for a few more years to come. To Let them lose their universality would be a disaster not only for their speakers, but also for the foreigners who, no longer learning these languages, will be deprived of those languages’ benefits and will have no choice but to see the world through Anglo-Saxon eyes.

Generally speaking, when speakers of a language come to the conclusion that their mother tongue is not universal, or is no longer universal, an irresistible demand for a universal lingua franca develops, which then becomes the language of education, especially at a high level, such as Masters and PHD. French is the only language of education in French-speaking Africa, and the African educated speakers are giving up their ancestral languages. It is through this mechanism well-known by sociolinguists that the regional languages ​​have disappeared.

Is this what we want? The least would be that we discuss it democratically and do not let university rectors make unreasonable decisions dictated by current facts. It would be also normal if journalists did their investigative and informative jobs correctly. It is difficult indeed. The linguistic acculturation process is slow, unconscious and looks like a natural phenomenon. It is taking place before our eyes in favor of English, provoking only marginal reactions (this one for example). The French elite have already largely shifted to English; it is only a matter of time before the rest of the people aspire to the same. This will be the beginning of the end of our language and our culture.

Fortunately, a voluntarist language policy can often improve things significantly. In 1863, the Finnish Parliament decided that Finnish would be as an official language for the same reasons as Swedish. Without this decision, with its impact on the educational and administrative system, it is likely that Finnish would be only marginally spoken today, like Occitan, Basque, Breton and Alsatian in our country.

Curiously, to my knowledge, there are no sociological and anthropological studies on the causes of the adoption of English as the language of education, nor on the expected sociolinguistic and economic consequences. Pragmatic reasons such as those put forward by the rector of this Milanese University are ridiculous and can be swept away easily. A very complex phenomenon is taking place in front of our eyes which could be perhaps understood with the methods of anthropology, sociology and sociolinguistics.

Translation:Ana Megrelishvili